With a career as long and varied as Steven Berkoff’s, you would think that he might have something insightful to say about the often unglamorous reality of an actor’s life. But his unfocused and self-indulgent new play – receiving its world premiere at the Charing Cross Theatre – squanders its potential.
In a snow-bound country hotel, six actors are waiting to be called back to the set: frustrated by working for a demanding, detail-obsessed director and with a boozy and aloof star, they chat, bond and bicker over the course of the evening, all of the time longing for that galvanizing word: ‘action’.
It is in observing the mundane minutiae of behind-the-scenes life that the play is strongest; Berkoff casts a gimlet eye over the insecurities and pretensions of his six actors. But, as characters, they too often descend into self-dramatizing stereotype. Andree Bernard’s Eve is a past-her-prime blonde advocating the ‘take the money and run’ approach to acting, while her clear successor, Sarah Chamberlain’s Debra, still retains an idealism about the transformative power of theatre, as yet untarnished by the reality of a thespian career. Philip Voss’ avuncular older actor Charles frets about contacting his travelling daughter, while Paul Trussell’s world weary Alan argues the privations of a life in rep; his pretentious assertion that actors are like soldiers is punctured by Neil Stuke’s objectionable but pragmatic Brian. Ruth Everett’s spiky young Francis rounds out the sextet, and is fast to take up Brian for his boorish manner. The performances are solid, if a little over-mannered, but they have little to work with for none of the characters are particularly well-drawn.
There is no real dilemma here, no drama: and while it’s not impossible to draw humour from insignificance, it’s a hard thing to sustain when there’s so little to keep the momentum going. There is never any sense of risk: no one’s career or even dignity is at stake. Laughing at the delusions of actors, even if they are presented with some degree of sympathy, is not enough to keep the audience invested. For all its loudly proclaimed modernity – with a clumsily inserted paean to the iPhone and Apple customer services – it feels old fashioned and ideologically out of date.
It’s understandable that as both writer and director Berkoff gives too much liberty to his own words, but his scenes are stretched out way beyond their lifespan. Both the off-stage opening sequence and the painfully drawn out denouement labour under the misapprehension that a joke gets funnier if you keep repeating it. The potential for humour is hammered out flat, and this is true of the whole production. Actors in search of in-jokes may enjoy it, but for anyone else, there is very little here to love.